Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ellington v. Coltrane

Slate has been running essays by Clive James culled from his forthcoming collection Cultural Amnesia, a gathering of pieces combining biography and astute critical comments on the 20th Century's most engaging personalities, A-Z. Typically British and marvelously intelligent, James' goal is not just to inform the uninitiated to new persons and their ideas, but also to provoke a conversation, perhaps controversy among the cognoscenti. He does this effectively on a recent excerpt on Duke Ellington; the essay reads well and describes the composer's particular genius for writing three-minute swing masterpieces, not a point of contention. He then takes the dimmer view of Ellington's later work, when he was composing and performing longer concert pieces, a denser, less swinging arrangements of colors and moods. James is not happy with The Duke's efforts:

The ­art form he had done so much to enrich depended, in his view, on its entertainment value. But for the next generation of musicians, the ­art form depended on sounding like art, with entertainment a secondary consideration at best, and at worst a cowardly concession to be avoided. In a few short years, the most talented of the new jazz musicians succeeded in proving that they were deadly serious. Where there had been ease and joy, now there was difficulty and desperation. Scholars of jazz who take a developmental view would like to call the hiatus a transition, but the word the bebop literati used at the time was all too accurate: It was a revolution.

This isn't an unusual position, since critic Gary Giddins has written at length about why he considers Ellington's legacy resting not on denser, mature work in later years, but instead on the sheer wealth of shorter dance tunes he brought to light; all the invention one might wish in notation and sound are found in the work Ellington performed to keep America dancing. Yet Giddins admits the originality and greatness of much of the larger work, while James is harboring a resentment against the post-swing developments of Bebop complexity and post-Bop envelope-tearing improvisation of John Coltrane. Pretty much implying that one of the greatest betrayals against art was that of a younger generation of improvisers seeking ot expand jazz's lexicon, James cites with endearing relish the great Ben Webster's magical tenor work for Ellington against the wild man arrogance of a younger John Coltrane:

There is nothing to be gained by trying to evoke the full, face-­freezing, ­gut-churning hideosity of all the things Coltrane does that Webster doesn't. But there might be some value in pointing out what Coltrane doesn't do that Webster does. Coltrane's instrument is likewise a tenor sax, but there the resemblance ends. In fact, it is only recognizable as a tenor because it can't be a bass or a soprano: It has a tenor's range but nothing of the voice that Hawkins discovered for it and Webster focused and deepened. There is not a phrase that asks to be remembered except as a lesion to the inner ear, and the only purpose of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant. Shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals. Above all, and beyond all, there is no end to it. There is no reason except imminent death for the cacophonous parade to stop. The impressiveness of the feat depends entirely on the air it conveys that the perpetrator has devoted his life to making this discovery: Supreme mastery of technique has led him to this charmless demonstration of what he can do that nobody else can. The likelihood that nobody else would want to is not considered.

Jazz ought to have stood still.

The most noticeable element of this essay is Clive James' resentment that people and things change over time. Eloquent as he is about Ellington's great early period, there is less a convincing argument for the superiority of swing over more experimental strains of jazz than it is a barely contained lament for lost, youthful elan.

As has been said already, the rhythms of the world changed after WW2, and the kids were taken with rock and roll's back beat rather than what was going on with jazz. Being able to swing was besides the point; the children of the Ellington era audience wanted to rock. The jubilation at the Ellington "comeback" concert was a good and great thing--good art should always cause excitement--but it didn't translate into the fabled return of the Big Band/Swing era. It's doubtful Ellington himself would have desired a return to the Golden Days, as he was far too interested in the new music he was composing and performing with his Orchestra. For such a bright fellow, Clive James has the queer notion that art, jazz in this instance, must not progress some vague peak of expression; band leaders should keep their writing chops focused on producing
limitless three minute dance tunes, and soloists have to remain sweet, lyrical, and brief. Art is only interesting in that it evolves with successive generations of players, and it would be a strange and stale reading world if novelists adhered to perceived rules from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, or if film makers eschewed sound and color. Jazz would be a predictable shtick rather than a creative act.The truth of this is that audiences were turning away from jazz in general.Dispite whatever historicist arguements advanced pitting traditionalists against experimenters in order to explain jazz's declining audience,both Ellington and Coltrane were both playing to diminished fan bases;the record buying public had gotten younger and leaned towards a simpler rhythm and blues style. This was true among black audiences, whose generational switch to Ray Charles, and Rufus Thomas influenced white audiences, resulting in the eventual rise of rock and roll. Everything gets displaced from the center. Clive James objects to both Ellington's widening ambition with his composing, recording and performance of longer concert pieces and to Coltrane's redefining what jazz improvisation could sound like. He seeks to locate the cause and the instance when jazz ceased being the world's all purpose sound track, and for as sweetly as he writes, seeks to attach blame. He forgets a crucial fact of being alive; things change.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A little house keeping on the Book Shelf

Some house cleaning is in order, as three books have been read in the last month, enjoyed in varying degrees, and now lie in a stack waiting for a summation, a judgement. There are larger problems in life, and the issue of feeling compelled to remark on recent reading is a luxury in actual fact. How the book reviewers, paid and not paid, love to whine and simper of their peculiar burden.

The Road
Cormac McCarthy
Easily the strongest, strangest novel I've read from 2006, a parable set in an unspecified American future, set during an unspecified world-destroying catastrophe.
A man and a boy head up a road , past ruined farms, through scorched forests, alongside ravaged towns, heading to some future that is unknown, dodging packs of subhuman road agents as they forge, hide and push forward on the ruined planet. McCarthy's vision is spare, ashen, terse in the best sense of Hemingway in the
creation of mood and tone that seeps in from outside the paragraphs; this is the same vision of Faulkner of Absolom Absolom, but with the metaphorical link to an idealized past all but burned out of consciousness. This is a novel that will convince you just how tenuous a sane and orderly existence can be.Few craft sentences as powerfully, as effectively as McCarthy, and there are far fewer who create the the sort of haunted poetry The Road abounds in with such a select use of language.

The Discomfort Zone

Jonathan Franzen

Franzen, author of the flawed (and overpraised) novel The Corrections, is a good prose stylist who none the less makes my hairline hurt when I encountered his essays in the collection How to Be Alone. Bright, ironic, discerning, Franzen took off on several topics, filtering his observations through his general air of feeling people, places and things are an imposition on his right to be in a bubble, brilliant and unsoiled by alien hands. Fine , I thought, his itchy irritation with things was worth the toleration due to his finesse as a prose stylist, and the sheer abundance of unexpected insight on a range of items, small and smaller. Franzen thinks a lot, and blessedly he writes well enough to make his slightest notion interesting. The Discomfort Zone, though, brings his antsy tone to a grating pitch, like a plumbing squealing late in the night,These set pieces, recollections of a man who is unhappy he's middle aged and more intensely self aware than he ever has been,use up a readers' empathy. Though often moving--the piece about trying to sell his parents house after their deaths got me by the throat a couple of times--Franzen's writing takes on the rhythm of someone
speaking perfect sentences without the slightest variation in tone. Not a single inflection intrudes. He just goes on about what was and what was there and what it contained and what it smelled like and who made him nervous and who he liked and who betrayed him and what they wearing and what the ordered for lunch...You get the idea.
You wish would shut up.

The Preservationist
David Maine

Wicked and fanciful imagining of the story of Noah's Ark, made into a comedy with sufficiently contemporary allusions and unexpected rents and tears in the familiar
saga of how God destroyed the world in order to save it. Noah and his immense family
squabble, scheme, bicker and connive for some position within the Patriarch's distracted gaze, and all of them try to outwit an Old Testament God who is seen here as insane and mean spirited. The comic flourishes are very fine, pithy, funny.

Derrida and the Dirt Nap of Literature

My slight bit about Derrida is that his central contribution to the analysis of literature was creating a rhetorical means by which a generation of coming literary critics were relieved from having to discuss a book in a way that shows that they've actually read it. I've struggled with Derrida's work for several years, and have absorbed quite a bit of writing by him and about him and his ideas, and evasion of the book, the author's concerns, seems more the game rather than explication.

Many times when one thinks they've come upon an oasis of actual discussion in this varicose discourse , both Derrida or an apostle one might be reading makes a hard turn, left or right, from whatever metaphorical road or river you might have been traversing; in any event, every side road, alley, tributary and inlet was wandered into and prated about until exhaustion drove the reader from the chair and desk they sat at, not convinced of Derrida's and deconstruction's vague premises, but rather resigned that this was a peculiar literary mafia who had no intention of treating literary work like it had an intrinsic worth. Derrida and his supporters argued otherwise, in their few moments of assertive writing, and maintained that the deconstructive process intends to reveal a multitude of interpretations by demonstrating what contradictory positions compose a nominally "authoritative" texts.

It's a grand project on the face of it, an investigative premise intriguing enough to be worth a try, but the results of twenty plus years of post-structuralist theory applied to an arbitrarily termed "canon" produced not clarity, nor comprehension, but only more confusion. One understands why Harold Bloom, a former proponent of Derrida's method, tired of the nihilistic wallow of post-modernism and turned his attentions again to a more fruitful mission of literary criticism and the attending philosophical/religious digressions, how literature gives a reader and a culture an malleable interior superstructure one filters raw experience with.

Derrida's accomplishment , I think, was to take assume an array of philosophical tropes available from credible philosophy survey course , add his own egregious seasoning to the unpalatable stew, and turn what used to the sort of infinite prattle of the cocktail party poser into book contracts, tenured positions, and all the other perks of being a celebrity intellectual. It's significant about Derrida's contribution to literary criticism that his name rarely, if ever, arises when useful quotes about authors and their books are the subject of a conversation.

This is a twofold irony, the literary critic with nothing useful to say about what they've been reading, and an incredibly bad writer as well. That such an awful scribe makes such a dent in the upper reaches of the culture ought not surprise us, just as the success of Jackie Collins is a twofold irony, the literary critic with nothing useful to say about what they've been reading, and an incredibly bad writer as well. That such an awful scribe makes such a dent in the upper reaches of the culture ought not surprise us, just as the success of Jackie Collins no longer distresses mainstream book reviewers. Often times talent and ability have nothing to do with an author's good fortune.

My principle misgiving with Derrida's ideas was his insistence that one cannot argue a point with certainty; there is a lot more to his arguments, subtle, abstruse, and obscured with every evasive trick of the tongue and pen he could muster, but this cluster of notions is at the heart of his life's work. I'm willing to grant that Derrida's intentions were all for the best--that he would expose how the production of meaning, and with it a hazy notion of "authority" comes from a socially constructed set of binary oppositions which, of course, entrenches in constrained ideas about reality-- but his failure to be clearer with his method and aim, and more useful in how readers and citizens can configure a discourse that might lead to ways of ridding the world of its internalized malfunctions has given us instead a sort of relativistic nihilism that advances the severest reactionary premises with what to do with the planet we live on. Baudrillard, certainly, has take the opening as a chance to advance his set of tightly quipped solipsisms that insist, at the heart of their gnomic devisings, that apathy is as effective and meaningful political gesture as any any collective might take on.

Since no definitive or authorially fixed moral argument can be made against racism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism , pollution, et al,so the thinking goes, one may as well go about their way in this existence unmindful of what constitutes ethics or responsibility, and fulfill such base desires and impulses that give that transitory definition to one's existence, a fleeting sensation of purpose to be replaced by another fleeting fleet sensation, and so on, until one drops, spent, exhausted, dead. This encourages apathy in the pursuit of truth, I think, and in fact reinforces such paranoid mind sets which needs to witlessly demonize whole sections of a society's citizenry as "other" and "evil". Racism and homophobia are allowed to thrive in the absence of the ability to make a principled statement, to have a debate, to reach a consensus about what constitutes an idea of right and wrong no longer distresses mainstream book reviewers. Often times talent and ability have nothing to do with an author's good fortune. My principle misgiving with the ideas was his insistence that one cannot argue a point with certainty; there is a lot more to his arguments, subtle, abstruse, and obscured with every evasive trick of the tongue and pen he could muster, but this cluster of notions is at the heart of his life's work. I'm willing to grant that Derrida's intentions were all for the best--that he would expose how the production of meaning, and with it a hazy notion of "authority" comes from a socially constructed set of binary oppositions which, of course, entrenches in constrained ideas about reality-- but his failure to clearly outline his method and aim, and more useful in how readers and citizens can configure a discourse that might lead to ways of ridding the world of its internalized malfunctions has given us instead a sort of relativistic nihilism that advances the severest reactionary premises with what to do with the planet we live on.

Baudrillard, certainly, has take the opening as a chance to advance his set of tightly quipped solipsisms that insist, at the heart of their gnomic devisings, that apathy is as effective and meaningful political gesture as any any collective might take on. Since no definitive or author- fixed moral argument can be made against racism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism , pollution, et also the thinking goes, one may as well go about their way in this existence unmindful of what constitutes ethics or responsibility, and fulfill such base desires and impulses that give that transitory definition to one's existence, a fleeting sensation of purpose to be replaced by another fleeting fleet sensation, and so on, until one drops, spent, exhausted, dead.

This encourages apathy in the pursuit of truth, I think, and in fact reinforces such paranoid mind sets which needs to witlessly demonize whole sections of a society's citizenry as "other" and "evil". Racism and homophobia are allowed to thrive in the absence of the ability to make a principled statement, to have a debate, to reach a consensus about what constitutes an idea of right and wrong

Friday, February 16, 2007

Some good words about Philip Johnson

Witold Rybczynski takes the usual line against Philip Johnson by insisting that his work were the same old assemblages of old and new welded together, and once again I respond that Johnson had those qualities that are, for the most part, lacking in post-modern architecture; grace, symmetry, style, simple elemental elegance.

Indeed, postmodern architectural style in the wrong hands is a nightmare of bad taste, bad ideas and bad faith foisted on perfectly good pieces of the city scape, but Johnson wasn't one of the dullards. In his best moments he would size up the curious advantages a plot of land would give him, and would render a structure that was a curiously satisfying synthesis of other designer's notions of outrage and an sense of how to make things fit, compliment, enhance as well as challenge a city's high rise profile knew how to make his buildings fit into a skyline, particularly one that studded with structures of historical import; and have his buildings seemingly converse with the history of a given city's urban center. It is not an insult, indeed a compliment, that he had an interior designer's sense of an area's elemental gestalt; what was being added was an organizing principal that could enliven and calm a turmoil being played on the urban eye simultaneously.

His One Detroit Center in my home town does this wonderfully; the elements of the past, particularly the pitched topping and the alteration of cement and glass are an effective and underplayed homage sorts of Louis Sullivan aesthetic from Detroit's great the twenties through the forties, and yet whose lines and playfully exaggerated proportions offers an idea that there is a future for this city that is not cut off from it's past.

Johnson's best work shows that he understood this need for connectedness, and why he felt that the social engineering agenda behind embedded in the modernism in which he started was inadequate. One shapes the future by understanding the best the past has given us, and establishes within institutions a continuity of the best virtues in a manner to motivate the best good one can do for their community. This is a totalitarian impulse at the farthest edge, insisting that citizens live and work a certain way within spaces designed with it in mind to engineer away human shortcomings; the need for order of things made from materials and blue prints contains the conceit that populations can likewise be organized and kept in place. Johnson, though, appreciated the inconsistency of the human element , strong, individualistic despite an innate need to gather in communities and to create shared culture. Rather than regard his buildings as a means to mold human personality, to act as a corrective, he admitted, in the best post-modern spirit, the need for fun, play, surprise with new buildings. Structures needed to amaze, amuse, engage with an elegance that made city life a tolerable concern, even an inspiring locale. His aim wasn't allowing form following function, the cityscape needed to be fun. If function only produced anonymous reminders of corporate power, doing anything at all was , in essence, pointless. Johnson was not a soul killer. Theory of form was reduced to the practical aspects that combined function with an aesthetic grace which
welcomed workers, residents, and visitors to walk within and around, channeling a large spirit of metropolitan life.

It's a lot of bluster, yes, but it's a principle Johnson believed in all the same, and however suspicious his motives might seem in retrospect in view of his youthful dalliance with Nazism, what came from his life's work are wonderful buildings that have more often than not graced downtown areas everywhere one might look. Johnson's instinct was about order and grace and returning style and form as a means in which functionality in urban structuring would achieve beauty and maximum service at once. This is the idea that art can inspire men and women and change them and their society to a higher calling--this is the dread promise and ghost of modernism--and as seductive as the idea remains, it is a slippery result to fascism, the government that comes to worship and deify the individual of genius who is able to inspire legions into an Aryan future. Johnson fell under this seduction, and didn't speak of it much as he began to pick up commissions in American and Europe, but you wonder if he ever had faith in American democracy and its promise of limitless pluralist vistas. I doubt it, but I am grateful that he left the company of evil men and contended himself with what he could humanly do in this world that was a social good, which was to design and build.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Camille Paglia's back at Salon: a floundering wallow of self-regard

Erstwhile firebrand Camille Paglia , a maverick humanities professor who chose some time ago to be equal parts genius and fool in an effort to get a general public to think outside their flimsy catagories and frames of reference, has returned to an old writing gig, as a columnist for Salon. She wrote the column from 1995 to 2000, and then left the gig to concentrate on writing her 2004 book, the punchy collection of poetry criticism Break , Blow, Burn, and now returns to Salon's cyber pages, declaring herself in the first column that she was a pioneer of all that internet geeks and pundits and blogoholics take for granted. She essentially provides the "About the Author" box in the column's first paragraphs rather than at the end of the piece, where it traditionally appears. She has written important monographs, she has appeared on C-Span, she was in the advance guard in speculating our the cyber realm will effect politics and culture, she is a lesbian liberatarian Democratic pro choice aethiest, she wants you to know who she is. It is tiresome, of course, and yet you keep reading knowing that parsing Paglia isn't a waste of time. For all the prate and prolix , there are the fabled "flashes of brillance", ' though I fear, as the late Molly Ivins has said about this claim, that any such glimmers are lost in the yammering.

I'm a fan of Paglia when she gets beyond herself and writes about the culture and the arts it produces. It's here, and nowhere else, where the claims of her intellectual virtuosity and originality have merit. Sexual Personae had more outrageous and wonderfully defended propositions than any bit of academic criticism I've read, and Break, Blow,Burn brought an old school rigor to discussions of poetry , prate and self-consuming criticalese and connecting her selection of poems to the world. With those two books she makes the life of the mind exciting and attractive to someone wondering whether they should bother with Great Books and avant gard posturings. As a columnist, though, Paglia tries her hand at being the public intellectual, or worse,the celebrity intellectual,and comes up seeming comic rather than compelling. Doubtless she has Norman Mailer in mind as the self-aggrandizing firebrand, but strange as it seemes she lacks Mailer's charm and musical finess as a prose stylist.

Mailer might have been a boor and a lout, but he could write rings around his peers and segue into a metaphor rich discussion of war, poverty, women's rights, sexuality , theology, architecture with an intoxicating urgency. One need only compare Mailer's essay collections like Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers to realize that Paglia has modeled her public persona on his amazing self confidence. What she lacks in this fast-paced world of instant opinion, though, is grace or a sense of her own absurdity, a quality that Mailer had , expressed and which endeared him even to this critics. He had a sense of irony about his attempts to light a fire in the conciousness of a post war generation he knew had been seduced by television.Paglia, I'm afraid, is just another typing head as this stage; pioneer she may be as an ur-blogger, but her return to Salon is not a return to form. An extended bout of self-congratulation makes her sound like she's interviewing for a entry position in a new media company. The remarks about Hillary, Obama, John Edwards, et al ,are likewise unremarkable.She sounds like she's the last one to have heard the news; she sounds several beats behind the rest of the band she's trying to join. I hope that Paglia's columns yet to come are better than this slogging mass of egomania and trite conjecture. Sad to say for someone of her daunting intellect, but she seems out of her depth.

Friday, February 9, 2007

"Major Third" by Jeffery Bean

I worked in the carnival for a number of years when I was half the age I am now, and it was a pleasant memory Jeffery Bean evokes with his opening stanza of his poem Major Third, ] the most recent selection by Robert Pinsky for his column in at Slate.

It comes from gravel lots where the state fair
pushes fried dough and bagged fish out the mouths
of red-lit tents. It's pumped out of dunking booths
across the blocks and into windows, up the stairs

My recollections of the carnival are fun and joyous , for the most part, hard work and rough life as it was, mostly because I was young, resilient enough to withstand insane hours, gross monotony, and , being relatively rudderless as a young man, having nothing really better to do. It was an extended lark. Bean's poem, though, does little to reinforce my simpering revelry, as the piece lurks toward the inevitability of death and the details of a departed person's interior life of associations that made his time in life worth the pains it takes to breath comfortably "it" that Bean addresses is undisclosed, but that is the case of reaching for a far recessed memory when one's accumulated life experience becomes crowded and unsorted. It is the essence of experience, perhaps, that sensual texture that is for a second very strong and then recedes as one follows the rhythm of daily life, moment to moment, second to second. "It" , undisclosed, is fluid, ephemeral, but strong in it's allure that we follow it, from one thing to the next, the meaning of that essence, that center of vivid recall, altering as it touches the hems and trouser cuffs of passing phenomena.

...up the stairs

of the apartment where my grandfather is
dying in a room of mums. It's the song of Sunday
traffic, the car horn's hot punch to which he
tunes his hymn, the last tune he remembers.

Something begins to swell, something real is about to emerge from the familiar clanks and clamours of street life, and yet this fades as well, reduced to something tangibly minor and insignificant, puzzling to the casual observer, inscrutable.

It's where the voices in rooms above him drift when
they cheer, or sing, when they ooh and ahh
or rise in anger, say where have you been,
when they call out for help or to mourn—even then.
It's "La Cucaracha".
It's "When the Saints Go Marching In".

"It", after we follow the trail and appreciate the world where it floats on the air, is unknowable to anyone who wants to know the inner experience of a departed they felt they were close to. Sometimes things are revealed soon after the fact that are just baffling and are destined to be just that. Some things are taken to the grave.
Inane songs, quaint aromas, the comings and goings of neighborhoods; all we are privy to are assumptions that these odd elements indicated to the mourned that they belonged someplace in this lifetime. What that means beyond that is a matter for us to infer from our experience, a task too many of us defer until the day before the sightings of daylight. Wonderful poem.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima: Another Eastwood Masterpiece

Letters from Iwo Jima is yet another addition to Clint Eastwood's late blooming hot streak as a film director, a suitable and splendidly paced companion piece to his earlier WW2 movie Flags of Our Fathers. Bearing in mind that Eastwood had a mere twenty million dollar budget and had to significantly reduce the scale of the battle in which we meet the Japanese soldiers defending the Island against American invasion, we have all the same where character is constantly tested in the face of churning, devastating battle.

Small ironies, nuanced truths, and personality transformation are all to be had in this rag-tag gathering of island defenders, and it is well managed orchestration of story lines. The cowardly, the brave, the sadistic, the conflicted, the insane and deluded make up the character ensemble--what else would one want from a layered war story?--confronting demons and recall a life they've left behind or a life they've never had as the inevitability of American invasion gathers, literally, like dark clouds. Sappy as this may sound, Eastwood is a savvy enough director to pick up the cues of Iris Yamashita 's screenplay and not allow the character development hijack the harder point of war itself; while the performances resonate grandly (especially the performance of Ken Watanabe as the conflicted General Kuribayashi), it serves as texture, not narrative direction. The battle sweeps,blasts and burns regardless of what bonds the audience might have been formed with the pitiful soldiers, and what remains is a sense of what is destroyed as men are focused on destroying one another.

Long, yes, the movie is long, but Eastwood's style is the slow build; one may say that his slow moving films at least move, in the sense that there is a rich development the range of human quirkiness under duress in the shadow of oncoming disasters and fiascos. Letters from Iwo Jima is very , very fine.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Say it, don't splay it

Talking to people about their problems makes for frequent miscues of speech and grammar, a habit stemming from something no more profound than that most of us don't know how to talk about ourselves and our personal problems to another human being. Hence, we come to the habit of trying to sound clinical, distanced, as if we have some clear grasp on what's the matter with our inner lives or internal organs. Either way, it makes for low grade comedy, and it is struggle not to laugh out loud or lecture someone on sloppy usage. I want to keep the friends and acquaintances I have.

One of the most egregious uses I can think is the promiscuous use of "potentiality" when the simpler, punchier, less ambiguous "potential" would do a better job. There's a confusion of the number of syllables in a word with the precision of expression; the more trills the tongue has to
glide over, the clearer the communication.

Another coinage that sends static crackling through my ear is the frequent use of the bizarre formation "uncomfortability". Again, there's that self-concious nervousness that mistakes terms with centipede rhythms to be superior to more succinct words, but this instance is further problematized,(that is to say made more confusing) by an unintended, unEmpsonesque ambiguity. Are we to think the speaker is in a state of "discomfort", which is what one arrives at through context, or is he addressing his ability to be uncomfortability at will?

The literary possibilities are rich, but this is of no aid to someone who needs to make it clear that he needs an aspirin, a therapist, or a
licensed saw bones to alleviate the particular disorder, physical or psychic.

It's not that I object to multisyllabic words in everyday use, since one needs certain words to convey more elaborate ideas, but I do require that
the words exist, in the dictionary if not in nature.

Notes on Hemingway, Kerouac, Melville,

Living in a studio apartment where three of the four walls you have are dominated with bookshelves with nary a spare inch of space will sometimes find you staring extravagant lengths of time at the spines, arranged in neat rows and horizontally atop other volumes, reading the titles, sounding out the exotica of author names and pronunciations, driving through the roads of recalls of the villages, taverns and
great wars that have swept across the bound pages. Sometimes the only thing you can do with to make all this time spent regarding your taste in literary property is to jot down, or type out, some random thoughts, hoping some sentences lead to an essay, or merely work as complete thoughts. The following paragraphs are those kinds of sentences, hoping to make sense and be worth a reader's effort. -tb


Now and then, in passing, not intended to start a war of any dimensions, someone remarks about how Ernest Hemingway is overrated, his books kept in print and his reputation buoyed by conspiracies of tired white academics that yearn, in secret, for another “good war” for America to again assert its virtue. I get irked, bothered, pissed off royal when someone baselessly derides Hemingway’s accomplishment as a storyteller and stylist (but none as a thinker), but I do see the point about the cult of Ernest who’ve come to regard him as a stalwart of honor and reserve forged by the sacrifices of having lived through a World War when the enemy and the Evil they presented to America wasn’t the least ambiguous or murky with runny metaphorical drift.

Now and again I recall essays and lectures about bad wars and bad faith and bad character for the citizenry as a result, and even sighing in exasperation as otherwise intelligent people suggested that America could use a good war, a “just” war in moments of low national mood so that we might collectively have something to rally around, some shared values to swear to protect, some duty to perform. This is a slippery slope to fascism, yes?

I say leave Hemingway out of the war drum circle and concentrate instead on how well his stories convey the experience of a generation of Americans suddenly thrust into and upon the world, pulled from Wisconsin farms, Bronx tenements or California movie lot, and marvel as well at the economy with which he did it. As the moral authority of governments gave way to chaos and slaughters that only burned the earth, ideas of what were of value were internalized, personalized, nearly becoming part of the nervous system.

Hemingway is, in fact, grossly under-appreciated for his best work, specifically "In Our Time", "The Sun Also Rises", "To Have and Have Not". So much gets accomplished in such a stingy choice of words! His was a different world than the one we live in now, and his accounts of the world, is, at its highest, sublime. At his worst, he wrote sentimental gruel whose bathos so thick you could use it for mortar. A string of post-humous novels hasn't helped the reputation, and have served to obscure the real accomplishment. His writing is about trying to learn to be a man when even the teaching father is a madman sacrificing family for blind patriotism.It 's precisely because that he had issues with his masculinity that he tried to work out in his fiction , is a large part of what makes him great. The point of literary study is empathy as well as analytical comprehension. Hemingway may have fallen short of the self-actualization, but his fictive attempts, at best, resonate and move, and achieve transcendence even when he did not.

Perhaps it is a male thing, that these are matters that a reader might have to be intimate with in order to enlarge their appreciation of the work, but I think not. More, I think, it comes to personal taste, as in, if one does not care for the way Hemingway described his universe, fine.

But I don't believe the ability to relate emotionally to a text need be restricted to gender, nor should it be limited to any other smoking gun criteria. The college professors who instructed me through his work were men and women, and the women, I have to say, win for inspired lectures, wedding appreciation with critique, understanding the poetry of the struggle, and why the struggle was futile.
Prospecting for insight through Jack Kerouac’s' journals will be give scholars reason to devastate another section of prime forest, but his novels remain , inspite of it all, maddeningly inconsistent in their best forms, and progressively unreadable in later writing years. Kerouac had his moments of divine lyricism, I admit, but the cult around his grey, sotten visage is nearly as objectionable as the devotion many give to Ayn Rand: the matter is not how good the writing was, but what the author stood for. Once the chatter about writers drifts, or jumps desperately, from concerns with style in the service of great storytelling and lands in the odious camp that insists that a writers' primary task is only to reaffirm a readers' shaky self image of being a rugged and forward thinking individualist, I reach for a good book, or ponder taking a nap. Either option is more fruitful, or both are more interesting endeavors. It galls me that comparatively little attention was given to the passing of William Burroughs, the one true genius of the Beat group, while the easily assimilated rebellion of Ginsberg and Kerouac claims the top half of the literary pages.


It's not a matter of us finding our "Moby Dick" for this century, because that places a false premise from which we expect writers to operate from. Yes, there is the anxiety of influence and the desperate writing younger scribes do to escape from under the long, inky shadow of the geniuses of the recent and less recent past, but I think each period is unique, and that great work is produced in some concentration of creative frenzy that dissolves the anxiety.

Readers looking for another "Moby Dick" for this century are better served to consider their period unique and regard the tradition as a lineage that is not a straight, paved highway that vanishes into a classically defined set of particulars every would be master adheres to, but is rather a broken, dotted line that threads and weaves through a loose cluster of tendencies in the culture, filled with writers who redefine themselves and their art each time out. Melville himself had to break with his own habits, transcending his discipline as a clever crafter of sea stories, a venerable genre he arrived at, to write the masterpiece called "Moby Dick".

The best writers today do no different, living up to the nothing else other than the authenticity of their process. Faulkner and Joyce have comparable greatness, I feel, but I cannot escape the feeling that Joyce was the brainier of the two. Joyce’s' infinite layering of literature, history, theology and myth in to the molecular structures of Ulysses and Finnegan’s' Wake demonstrates someone with a sensibility that subtly wishes to have Art supplant the Church as the institution men may comprehend a Higher Truth( what ever it turns out to be). His own dialectic method, perhaps. I tend to agree with the remark of Faulkner being much blunter, though he is scarcely a brute: the sensationalism Faulkner could give into was also linked to a patch of swamp that released his language, and allowed him to master the interior monologue. This gave us novels like "Light In August" and "Absalom, Absalom" that had with diverse psychological density.

The human heart at war with itself.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sartre, poetry, itchy side burns

There are those of us who constantly wonder what the worth of it all is, the struggle,the tears,the aging, aching muscle and bone, until we happen a bit of beauty that makes having senses, feelings a wondrous thing indeed. Music, literature, all of it that makes one for a moment transcendent of their earthbound obligations and variegated sadnesses , has a value more important than "cash value" or practical application. The sounds of things and what they suggest to us rather than what they say to us get us in that rare state we can think more intensely, more creatively on our options. I think that beauty, in whatever guise, is the means through which we commit again to conduct ourselves creatively.

This reminds me of the most useful exertion of Sartre's peculiar blend of existentialism and phenomenology, that we have to acknowledge that reality, such as it is, is solid in its existence independent of our senses and fluid in how it pulses to laws that defies our subtle demands and expectations, and only when we realize this and bring ourselves to a "creative commitment" to live fully with the terms and consequences of our own actions can we , at least as Westerners, gain something like freedom or the chance to be happy (which is not to say contented). Meaning is personal, intimate, a creation culled from language and an aesthetic systematization of the senses, but it is not arrived at, willy nilly, from whole cloth; the particular desires for a form that gives us pleasure, brings us joy, and furnishes us with inspirations --spiritual, artistic, mechanistic-- to rise from an ever percolating vat of despondency and bring value to daily existence are unfeasible and practices of a short circuiting bad faith unless the world, as is, separate from our desires to control and command it like God(s), is cold to our desires , dreams and religious longings. That much we bring to the terrain.

Sartre is peculiar and appropriate because of the way he mixes what he likes from the philosophies he came under the sway of, and because his intuitively arrived and difficult to surmise views are fairly much in line with the poet's (or the true artist's) faculty to formalize their imaginings in what we can call , perhaps grievously, a "product" ( a poem, painting, a song, a novel, a film, et al) and hence add to existence a texture that makes prevents life from being merely something we survive. I am taken with his break from the theological existentialist who plied their trade before him, taking from them the notion that it is the act of faith, the action of belief, that has meaning alone, along with the willingness to live with and take responsibility for the consequences (or rewards) of one's decisions. Kierkegaard, Jaspers, et al, of course, were varied in their approaches, but there was God behind their theories, and what intriguing about Sartre was his idea that one had to live authentically in the absence of extra material guarantees of coherence,purpose, or final destination.

Heidegger was a phenomenologist, who had no interest or use in intricate systems of knowledge and who instead insisted that the meaning of existence can only be known through felt experience. Sartre's extension of Heidegger's framework, that existence has meaning only within the activity of participants, included an all important distinction, a continuous set of inquiries of the quality and style of choices one makes in a world bereft of institutional surety. Sartre, of course, took from religious existentialists like Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Paul Tillich, but the revolution in Sartre's thinking was to ponder the ethics of our choices in the absence of a God to micromanage our moral center.This atheism is not unexpected given that Europe had dragged itself through two World Wars that undermined , usurped and disrupted all universal claims as to how the World Spirit operates in a slow, deliberate, inevitable end of History. Sartre, though, wasn't entirely cynical, even if he was a little thick to read; meaning, hope, reason, joy were possible provided we realized the true freedom we always have and practice a creative commitment to the life we're are lucky enough to have; we make our decisions in good faith, take the steps to bring them into being, and we take full responsibility for our undertakings.

Why is Sartre trying to reassure us that feelings are possible without believing in God?Sartre would maintain that feelings, emotions are there regardless of whether one believes in God or not. The over all feeling of aloneness, isolation, he'd maintain, is one that is at the core of our awareness of existence, and what he would advise is grappling with that feeling of dis-empowering solitude, recognizing the source of the despair and (sigh) angst and construct a meaningful existence built around healthy choices about how one defines themselves. Not a quick fix, not a panacea, but it is about an authentic existence where we live in true freedom because our choices are own and we are truly responsible for them.

Is he acting like some kind of infomercial for existentialism?

I'd say no; rather he was a provocative intelligence who posed questions about authenticity, truth, and ethics after a world war where most commonly held assumptions about the Higher Purpose and Meaning of Life were undermined.

Aren't there other ways of finding commonality if there's no God for God's sake?

Sure, whether through art, politics. Sartre himself was his own particular species of humanist, which maintains that the qualities we ascribe exclusively to God are rather erring projections of virtues already latent in us "mere" mortals. He had a hunch, if an abstrusely expressed, that humans would find commonality sans a dictating Deity; far from each man being a lone agent enacting their lives oblivious to others , men would rather spontaneously find that there are enough similarities between the varied arrays of "creative commitment" to form a community, a government, a structure of government both rational and true to an otherwise misty conception of freedom.

Didn't Sartre pimp for Totalitarianism? Sad, yes, that philosophers whose aim is to free men from false constructs fall prey to tortured states of hero worship; where once these fellows might have sussed through matters as to what an individual can do to lead a principled, ethical and creative life now give themselves over to charismatic leaders who seem to them the sole possibility of human redemption and transcendence. Ezra Pound, hardly a friend of capitalism, found much to like in Mussolini's ideas of the Corporate State, with all the attending anti-Semitism and obfuscated racism retained, and erstwhile sophist Ayn Rand, for all her heckling about how the State shackles men and enslaves them to mediocrity, is seduced by the notion of powerful men of genius who will rise above conventional morality and blaze a new destiny for all humanity.

Note, please, that Rand's fantasy approximates the standard misreading Nietzsche received when his work was used as a philosophical argument for the inevitability of Nazi imperialism. The problem for these writers is not the state of human freedom but rather with the most effective, potent and correct use of Power that would rid the slate of man made complications. It's the moral authority of power that is at issue, not the worry that the common people aren't achieving greater levels of political and artistic expressiveness.

The tendency seems to be to convince readers, members of the literate population, to give up their quest and find solace, purpose and place in powers, forces, ideas that are greater than themselves--frustrations coming from, I don't doubt, from a recurring and systemic disgust with the stupidity of human doings, at the failure to learn the lessons of history. Diagnosis doesn't equal cure , though, and the brightest thoughts of of our most brilliant thinkers wind up eschewing the whole idea of personal freedom and responsibility and concentrate instead on ways to make the contentious noise of debate stop .It is fairly clear to me that even though he might have been clearer with his ideas--he was often a muddled writer, repetitious with his insulated definitions of particular words--his efforts were towards having human beings use their imaginations more fully, unencumbered by systems and dogmas that limit and destroy individual potential, places him in the center of the central ethical debate of the last half of the 20th century, which grappled with the problems of power, control, and the use of the imagination to make a world that is meaningful in terms we create, and are free to change given new evidence.

This poem made me madder than a wet hen

It might be said that was impossible to make anger a boring subject for a poem until Aliki Barnstone tried her hand at it. "Anger", Robert Pinsky's selection for the week, is set in situation a good many --too many-- of us recognize as awkward, strained, thoroughly unpleasant, a dinner for two who, sitting presumably at opposite ends of the table as they cut and chew their food with controlled strokes and grinding, manage a language in which they put each other on trial. Each has a turn to outline their argument , to make their case, the casing of civility chipping away with every scrape and jab of knife and stab of fork:

Yet we sit together at the table, each to serve
the other artfully poisoned morsels, point a fork,
and go on and on, watching the widening distance.

This would work, perhaps, if this were a fresher take on a soured relationship, but the poem treads territory that is too familiar, and Barn stone’s greatest mistake here is over writing the scenario her template provides. The poem reads like a set up for a knockout punch that does not materialize from the corner she's trying to fight her way out of.It goes on too long, and the device of comparing this meal and its discontents to a trial is less a metaphor than a reason to write further, to add stanzas.

You say, "You should have listened to me,"
and, "But you had to be you, didn't you?"
Then I become the witness who testifies against me.

We deliberate all night, inventing counterpoints,
narrowing our vision at spears of candlelight
and we go on and on, watching from a distance,

as we appeal, go back to discovery, retry, seek
sympathy by recounting suffering and history,
though this defense may deliver the verdict against us:

The prosecutorial element would have worked if it were brief, even fleeting, and if it were a means to segue into something else about the world this couple thought they were living in contrasted the world they now perceive as they relationship, presumably, slowly grinds to a stop. Barnstone might have managed something genuinely poetic if there were a sign, in images, of how the reality has changed. Rather, "Anger" reads as if Barnstone were too fascinated with the mechanics of making her -trial conceit work; the poem is damaged by repetition, needless volume. It is a mistake of perception, the assumption that the length of a piece is a measure of its value.This length equals a long wait in a doctor's office. It is a drone, as in the buzz of a drill felt through Novocaine's fading distance.

Grating as well is the last stanza, where Barn stone’s woman character, the "I" narrator, has a failure of nerve and instead wallows in the misery she and her husband/boyfriend make for each other:

our embrace will pull us down
through the shades, and we'll hold on to our grievances
and go on, too watchful, unable to get some distance,
reading and helplessly rereading the sentences against us.

Who amongst us does want to yell "get your ass out of there"? Barnstone clings to the relationship less for affection than for a reason to continue writing poems like this one. Poems written in bad faith about bad faith give evidence not just of bad, self-pitying verse, but gives obvious clues to an underlying disorder. I prayer is that Barnstone gets a relationship that is everything she desires it to be, and writes a poetry that doesn't reinforce a pathology.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Elvis Costello's deluge

Here's hoping that Costello doesn't publish a book of poems, since his more elaborate work of the last ten years, save the punchy and rocking' When I Was Cruel ,suffer a kind of Aesthetic Bloat. He wants to be taken seriously, and has weakened what used to be a strong cache of talent by too many half-considered
at complexity, diversity,and sheer musical muscle. Contributing to the diluting of the songwriter's work is his odd multilabel record deal with Polygram Records, with whom Costello seeks to release an album on each of that company's many imprints as it they might suit particular projects. What's informative, at least, is that there's a limit to what used to seem like Costello's unlimited capability; it's a symptom shared by novelist Joyce Carole Oates or poet John Ashbery, where quantity indeed diminishes quality. The voice becomes so ubiquitous and inevitably repetitious that you're left with nothing to look forward to.Sorry to say, that one grows tired of the signature styles with unceasing stream of releases and experiments. You become thirsty for other waters.

Costello's genius lies in square in the pop music tradition, where his fanciful notions of theme and eclecticism were reined in by a sense that a song had to work on many levels and still justify itself as something essentially pop-ish, of interest to listeners. This would the central lesson he could take from the Beatles, who remained tuneful and catchy, for the most part, during their great period of experimentation and lyric irony. So much of Costello's music lately has been reminded me of nothing so much as the sound of a man in the corner, on a cot, moaning and crying over a sadness he can't express. Costello used to be able to get the words
and music to match the heart ache and anger; this is not the case any longer.

Another case in point, Joni Mitchell.

One can go on about the preening seriousness of Costello's quest to wear a bigger
beret; Painted From Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, works only half as well as it should, since nearly song is medium tempo torch song where heartbreak after heartbreak is detailed to such brutal detail that one stops caring and wishes that Costello and Bacharach provided some the slick, horn accented pop music that was Burt's other strong suit during his strongest period, back in the day. North, truth be told, was so marginal that one had to wondered what brings a man as gifted as Costello to release a disc of leftovers, half thoughts, modest inventions.

I had the faint hope that Elvis Costello's most recent CD, "The Delivery Man”, would be a solid and tuneful set of punchy rock and roll and sharply writ lyrics as was Costello's previous "When I Was Cruel" from four years ago, but such is hardly the case. Well, no, that understates the disappointment, which was something akin to questioning my tastes when I was in college and feeling compelled, fleetingly so, to apologize for all the positive reviews I'd given his albums in the Seventies and early eighties when I felt I still had some purchase on informing the culture and the people in it about the best work the best of us were doing. Fortunately I stopped drinking some years ago and avoided anything so rash; I went to sleep and the worst despair was gone, but I was still irked, cheesed off, madder than a wet hen. Elvis Costello has been sucking for years now, and I was tired of waiting for one of those "return to forms" one anticipates aging rockers to do, hoping they live long enough to make one more disc that has half the kick such musicians might have had back in the day, or the night, or just back when they cared. One way or the other it amounts to waiting for someone to die, yourself or the artist in question. It's a very slow game of chicken.

The songs are wander bits of amorphous mood setting, vaguely sad, melancholic, and inward drawn. The worst of "Painted from Memory", is irresolutely medium tempo collection of Muzaked dirges with Burt Bacharach (both of whom apparently forgetting that Bacharach’s work is marked as much by quirky, up-tempo tunes) meets the pulse less shoe-gazing sniffling of "North”. Costello has been trying to show everyone how much he's matured and grown as an artist and writer, but unlike someone like Paul Simon, who improved dramatically in his solo work after he finally bid adieu to the collegiate poesy of Simon and Garfunkel's too-precious word mongering, Costello tries to get it all in, to say it all in one song, and then again in the song after that. His songs tear at the seams, and there is not the overflow of talent you'd like, but rather an uncontainable spillage. Simon, through "Rhymin' Simon" and onward, knows the meaning of restraint, containment, care in image and metaphor. He remains a songwriter with an especially strong sense of pop structure, a matter that forces him to make each song the best he can do at the moment. Costello is, on occasion, a better melodist than Simon and a more interesting, verbally dexterous lyricist, but it is his lack of care that sinks him here and through out most of his output in the 90's. Tom Waits, his closet in terms of sheer talent, does the sloppy and the unrestrained with the kind of genius we reserve for Miles Davis and Picasso. Costello is shy of genius, is a brilliant craftsman when he applies the technique, and reapplying himself is exactly what is called for. The songs on the new one are unfocused and drift in structure--Costello seems to be trying to convince that playing being indecisive about how he wants a melody to unfold, or what mood and psychology he wants to get across is enough to evoke Hamlet like assumptions of deep thought and artful equivocation on key narrative points. He sounds like he's trying to be artfully oblique, but what Costello forgets is that his greatest talent was his ability to absorb the styles of fifty or so years of rock, pop and rhythm and blues styles and then compose a fantastically buoyant music that was at once subtly argued in the lyrics and intensely rocking with the music. Costello must not like to dance anymore, and has entered middle age with some overblown assumptions that he needs to be artier, moodier, more depressed, more diffuse, and more obtuse than he was when he was a young punk trying to make a buck off his bad attitude.

There are those die hard fans who would counter that Costello's lyrics are the subtlest and most literary of his career, something I would argue against, but all the same this is a weak defense of the general torpor that saturates "The Delivery Man". Even if it were so, albums that are more interesting to read than to listen to are fit, on principle, to be used for target practice at the next skeet shoot.

Elvis Costello is a boomer himself. He was born in 1954, I was born in 1952. The issue isn't his taste in music-- I've been a fan and supporter of Costello since he first appeared in the States in 1977, precisely because it seemed he and I shared much of the same attitude about the world and that we drew from the same musical and literary influences. The issue is the lack of consistent quality in too much of his later work. He's written a good number of good songs scattered through out the uneven and unfocused discs he's released, but it's disconcerting to buy albums on the fading hope that I might be lucky enough to get two or three good tunes out of the average seventy minutes running time per CD.

I bought the record all by myself, listened to it alone, listened to it again alone, generally listened to it for a week by myself, more or less, and found that I liked it better than any record he'd been out in several years. I wrote my review on a now defunct music site I had without the benefit of reading anyone else's reviews; what I found when I did read the notices in The Village Voice and Rolling Stone was that the reviewers thought as I did, that EC was working at full boil once again. Not surprisingly (to me) most Costello fans I talked to about Cruel liked it quite a bit; some even thought it was his best album ever. Anyway, the point is that it's more likely that our man actually put out a great album rather than manifestation of group think. Cruel, actually, bucked the trend, since most of his later work was getting mixed reviews at best. The herd mentality, if there was one regarding EC, was to give him less than unqualified raves. As for the song lyrics, you already named two of them, both "Episode of Blonds" and "45" are punchy, clipped, caustic and wonderfully layered in their nuance, puns and insinuations, and I wish he could write this well more often these days. I would add another favorite, "Spooky Girlfriend".

Waits has a shtick, sure, but everyone does. Packaging and image is a large part of getting the music out there. Finally, though, there is the music
that stands to be judged, and Waits sublime fusing of alien styles --hard bop, delta blues, Brecht-Weil, Beat prosody, and any number of influences one might toss at him--is unique and grandly textured. It is artful, as opposed to arty, and it is unique, and contrary to the notion that he makes the same album over and over again, it's more accurate to assert that he has a style, a set of aesthetic principles he brings into play and expands or contracts as his instinct dictates. The music he's making in the late nineties isn't the same as the relatively modest efforts from the Seventies. He's grown, he's gotten wiser, and he’s become more interesting to listen to. And he's the best "poetic" lyricist currently in the game.
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Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I've seen Patti Smith twice in the Seventies, once at a student-run music club called the Back Door at San Diego University, and then about two years later at the Civic Theatre in the Downtown. A shock was what it was, like sex for the first time, scraping guitar, rudimentary drums, one-note bass lines, and Smith's incantations, yowlings, caterwauling, and proclamations, channeling Jim Morrison and Blake. It was static, feedback and backbeat fused with Smith's flailing rag doll dancing and howling, hardly refined but sublime. I told my date in the middle of the Civic Theatre concert that I wanted to climb on stage and fuck Smith. My date, a demure young woman had a look in her eye and whispered in my ear "So do I..."Patti Smith may be many things, but she is not a phony, and neither was Allan Ginsberg. Full of themselves, perhaps, and a shade pretentious but this is what it takes to an artist in America. Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, Kate Braverman, Ann Waldman, Truman Capote, and John Irving are no less fixed in their public identities and self-images of being people with words that cannot be denieddenied

Writing is not for modest people; but none of us have to live with these folks, just read their books and find what value there is to be had. Real emotion, insight, poetry, things that resonate with you despite the writer's quarrelsome personality. That's why you read them. Patti Smith I think is a fair- to- mediocre poet, but she was an excellent rock-and-roll artist; I have a firm rock-and-roll aesthetic and consider her best work to be on record and on the stage, in front of a band, and it is here where I think she taps into something larger than herself. But again, whatever she is, she's not a phony, whether you like her. I like some of what she has done and I admire her gutsiness to invade a male bastion and make rock-and-roll something women can find a primary place in. For Ginsberg, I would say he stopped writing good poems thirty-five years ago, abandoning his Blakean visions for a Buddhist practice of a direct transcription of his thought processes--no editing, "first thought, best thought". The result has been an awful lot of wasted paper. Still, when all is said about by professors, acolytes, and sycophants, there remain the great poems he wrote back in the day, mainly because "Howl", a certifiable masterpiece. 

There are several other Ginsberg poems and volumes that likewise ascend to the sublime, and when it all is said that there is to say about him, the writing that is actually good is what I return to, again and again. I worked a poetry reading he gave eleven years ago, and he was a crab, but he was also a man in a hurry; he knew he was dying and was dead about nine months later. So I will forgive his affectations and will be grateful that he lived long enough to write a handful of the best poems written by a post-war American writer.I wouldn't say that Ginsberg is a great poet, only that he has written some great poems. A great poet remains great over a longer stretch of their career than AG did; he ceased being a poet and became instead a celebrity. 

His great work, though, remains great, and that, for me, mitigates somewhat the ensuring mediocrity and cult of personality he cultivated. I would say Smith's arrogance is precisely what her rock-and-roll performance style require, and I found it exciting when I've seen her in full throttle. Personally, I don't mind arrogance in an artist if there's something there to back it up. I admire writers Norman Mailer and Camille Paglia, two strong personalities who back up their bluster with strong and eloquent word-smith-ing. The distinction between the gifted egotist and the blustering pretender would be that the gifted egotist's personality receded after a while and a reader confronts their assertions at face value.

 The pretender's disguise merely dissolves like spun sugar against a wet tongue. Smith, in a more limited sense, is akin to the aforementioned two; she is not a writer, really, but a performer tapping into energies made real by her immodest assertions. In a rock-and-roll context, I think it's riveting, and there is a strong DIY appeal here. She's marshaled her limit assets as a singer and musician, and even as a poet and transformed everything into a perfect rock-and-roll concept, where rough-hewed elements and qualities of the self-taught are deathless assets. If arrogance and extreme self-confidence are, of themselves, qualities one objects to regardless of the work produced, there's nothing I can say to change your mind.

Mark Conway's "Tarot Card of the Dreaming Man Face Down"

The tragedy of someone's death isn't that someone is no longer with us and that it's a sad and unjust matter of the universe that such a rich
life force is now extinguished.

No, it's not that, no matter our intense desires to fetishize the dead with praise of genius, great qualities and fantastic deeds. Those who have died are merely dead, after all, they've ceased feeling pain and mental anguish, they've gone beyond the nagging anxieties that makes Life a blood pressure reading we must keep our eye on. For all the hosannas and energized grief, for all the post-mortem reviews that might catch God's passing ear and perhaps persuade Him to allow the spirit through the improbably crafted gates, we are , in effect, frantically flattering ourselves for having had the acquaintance, claiming acquisitions of knowledge, wisdom, beneficial examples with each chat and shared drink; it's subterfuge, after all, and we pad the walls of our psyche against the irrational, powerful, consuming waves of rage and grief.

It is the living who are in pain, in various stages of mortal panic, it is the living who have to yet again close another house in their neighborhoods of the familiar and realize again, and again that those who are leaving this terrain are dying not through accidents or natural disasters, nor from age much in advance of their own, but from a mortality that wears a face much like their own. There is no longer distance in the deaths of those one knows, it is no longer a distant reference abstracted through complicated strings of association and family ties. Each passing leaves a tangible space next to you; you feel something gone, a wind blowing through an old house. We attend memorials, we go to services, we bring flowers to the grave site, we cushion ourselves in ritual acts and pro forma talk regarding death and dying, and yet still there is panic, anger, roiling, seething grief, a rage that remains. Mark Conway's poem Tarot Card of the Dreaming Man, Face Down gets to that tertiary layer in the geology of the soul and, I believe, gets it right when his narrator begins to admit that the rituals are not enough to handle a close death; he bites his lip and allows the thoughts to form, hard, bitter language, caught half way between poetic expression and stammering rant.

Then it was gone, the beatitude
of your body,
specifically there,
black, black, blue, heavy
as a dead dog, the back
of your legs
looking plastic, looking extra, trailing
behind the rest of you
like a mooch, like a goddamn moron and you
barely there,
already caravaggioing your way
through the light
and dark, mouthing the prime numbers
of eternity .

The memory of someone's entire lifetime is reduced to ritual and ornate templates of otherworldly inevitability, and this something that suddenly seems cheap and besides the point. Conway's narrator speaks for anyone who has the conflict during memorial services of thinking that the extended and costly protocols of death and burial being false and morally repugnant and yet sitting through it all, choking on combinations of tears and sorrow. One wants to be like Lear and tear off their clothes in the rain while excoriating themselves for their purchase of such now-conspicuously shabby delusions of order and purpose, yet one keeps their seat, ultimately uncertain of what lies beyond the last breath one takes and the last beat a failing heart manages. There is only the chance to live in that uncertainty, leave the ritual be, and acknowledge anger and selfish rage in the deeper recesses of the soul where true feelings reside in unthinkable cohabitation.

Where you are, slipping
through the monstrous
inner membrane of the world,
you see how it works.
I, like a mooch, like a goddamn moron, live.

We waited for you. Two or three days.
Then an old man came and prayed

Searching for words, Conway's narrator attempts the elegant and the poetic to make his ambivalence ironic, to create another kind of distance between his emotions and his constructed equilibrium, but what comes forth is only confusion. Conway's poem works for me because it is not dense with literary or to the cultural references, although the piece cites them. Conway goes past the dictionary contextualization, or the gnomic referencing;he does not pull an Ezra here and drop obscured names and terms into a verse without pause to make them emotionally relevant. Our narrator seems tongue tied, between a cultivated voice that makes easy resizing of responsive emotions, the other wholly inarticulate. What happens are high cultured points stripped of their critical trappings with their naked appeal to emotion bared yet again. Something tangible in Caravaggio's dark paintings is revealed when his name is here used as an adjective. The poem is a elliptical account of the inner struggle to regain composure and the overwhelming desire to collapse under grief's smashing weight.

The inexpressible cannot be written or spoken into being; the truth that does arise is the insoluble fact that goes on, life is for the living , that goodbyes must stop and one's shoulder must return to the wheel one is obliged to push through obligations. One needs to stop dreaming of a visit from an gone soul and learn to live in the spaces formerly occupied by another.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


The Castle in the Forest
by Norman Mailer (Random House)

Norman Mailer’s new novel, The Castle in the Forest, to be released on his 84th birthday on January 23rd, is an eccentric imagining about the young Adolph Hitler, narrated by a top lieutenant of The Devil. Mailer's novel is study in three generations of dysfunction, with the young Adolph being the cold sociopathic fulfillment of Hitler Family Values. In incident after incident, ranging from his father Alois's incestuous infidelities to the youth's rapt fascination in a village blacksmith's theories on how a "Will of Iron" is galvanized only through relentlessly consuming fire, Mailer's use of the narrating demon is, in fact, a inquest into why and when the worm had turned.

It's an audaciously seductive saga exhibiting Mailer's verve in full force. Among Mailer's lifelong themes have been examinations of power as well as the consequences, political and spiritual, of how power is used. This theme, Mailer’s central obsession in his fifty years of authoring books, is obvious in such varied novels as An American Dream, the punch-drunk fiction that has an alcoholic writer and television personality murdering his estranged wife from intuited instructions from the moon; or in Ancient Evenings, where reincarnation and sexual domination are the means to control and manage one’s journey through history. The first person memoir of Jesus Christ in The Gospel According to the Son, where we witness the bizarre difficulty of being half man and half divine in the exercise of godly powers with a very mortal sense of weariness and exhaustion, while within the generational CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost Cold War intelligence gathering becomes akin to religious practice and operatives must ironically acquire the capacity for amoral application of trade craft to preserve the rumored good of their cause. We have in this brilliant and contentious series of novels characters who give themselves over to impulse, obsession and a sense of greater powers instructing them to follow vaporously suggested agendas. These are acts of faith without promise or proof that the demonstrations will come of any conventionally desired good.

Diverse though the settings and eras are, Mailer’s fiction all have a similar existential notion, whether his protagonists take responsibility for the actions given them by respective flights of intuition, voices from ashen moonscapes, or the whispers of ghosts and spirits. Mailer has defined his idea of existentialism as the practice of taking risks and accepting challenges without regard to trying to control the results. It is only in the pure state of happenstance that real and authentic choices are made, with the manipulation or denial of the requisites ending badly, in disease, disaster, war, lost hope. The Castle in the Forest’s imagined portrait of a world scourge emerging from a festering mess will give one something to ponder, perhaps in a pause of action when one is deciding whether to be a bastard by exacting a revenge for a slight, real or imagined, or mature enough to let the irritation fade and thus not make the world a more sour place. The beating of butterfly wings indeed; our good works, enacted in good faith, has an effect on how history turns out, but the sad fact is that our worst deeds seem to swell faster and sweep aside all good intentions in their tsunami like rush.

Our narrator, a lieutenant of Satan going by the name DT, or Dieter, here tells his tale in elaborate detail, extended digressions, and anecdotes about what it’s like to work for such a horrific employer, and characterizations of the small nuances of the war between heaven and hell. Young Hitler is nudged, whispered to, exposed to various stimulations, excitements and harsh experiences, made to witness great spectacles and various forms of cruelty and abuse.

Worse, perhaps, DT gives the young Adolph’s ears the speeches of vain and minor men and women speaking volumes about their best intentions, only to have their asides and instructions and philosophical squibs given the lie by crudity and violence. The petty vanities of Hitler’s parents—a preening brute of a father, a doting and emotionally confused mother—and their sustained failures to be ballast for their children gives us a portrait worthy of Faulkner of a family held together on delusional applications of bad faith. Adolph is lied to, pampered, ignored, humiliated, praised and damned; we are given DT’s chronicle of how he had subtly, quietly created the conditions under which the youth who would personify unrelieved grief. This is far less the creation of a merely immoral person, but rather the formation of a collective world view; young Adolph's experience in a world where every adult action is justified by transparent prevarication forces him to organize manipulative techniques that will in turn help tap into a country and culture's bounty of stored frustration and rage.

Adolph fantasies of himself as master of the world who will forge it to perfection, or destroy it in the attempt, and the delusion becomes an ideology, a cause, a death wish that engulfs the world. Mailer’s writing is sure and vivid, showing again his ability to assume voices quite unlike what we'd consider his elegant, wild and rolling style.

Insinuating his ideas in the idealized cadences of Marilyn Monroe , an ancient Egyptian King and Jesus , Mailer's bold empathy with of their respective struggles helps him in find a mortal ,human center, divided between polarities of the All Good and All Evil. The human soul has equal capacity toward the saintly and the unspeakable, and it is the center the pragmatic mind assumes. Both tendencies are balanced for the individual to live creatively through a life of unexpected results, but it is DT's assignment from Satan(whom he refers to as "The Maestro") is to usurp, subvert and stunt charitable inclination and curtail the capacity for more nuanced world view. The aim isn't pragmatism, which allows a man or woman the capacity to make decisions and take action without a guarantee about the results. DT's interventions make the young man's mind a reactionary, solipsistic mess. What would have been a better nature in less obstructed circumstances become a roiling mass of impulsively destructive delusion.

The goal isn't the greater good, but the greater chaos, and the reason, offered by DT with barely concealed glee, is petty and judgmental, to embarrass the Lord God for all His pomp and humorless instructions to humility and selfless works. DT is a demon who loves his work, but work it is no matter how he relishes the resulting chaos, and for all the information about the conduct of the war between Heaven and Hell, the social strata of rank within The Maestro's army, and the alluring description of tricks of the Devil's persuading trade have Wildean jadedness, a sharply articulated sense of professionalism that has become mere expertise. DT, albeit untrustworthy, is bored and frustrated with his Master's assignments. Something is not revealed here, and DT's evocations of how young Hitler's psyche was polluted by engineered bad luck and circumstance are told with just a hint of sympathy for the boy's eventual fate as destroyer.

The scenario echoes old Flip Wilson jokes about a felon explaining in his crimes with "the Devil made me do it", but the dashed expectations, engineered disillusioning , and endless witnessing of adult duplicities wedge the youth into a sphere where moral choice is impossible; simply, there are no genuine virtues to learn, no moral behavior attending all professing and philosophizing. DT's ministrations to his client aid him in achieving true pathology. The world and its people is something either to endure or to master with the mightiest force imagination and will is able to muster. Unreflective, unmoved by incident, we experience a malevolence slowly layered and nuanced with conflicting impulses and desires, warring instincts one resolves by unleashing violence onto the world.

You detect a sigh of Hell-born despair between the demon's measured words. He is at once sympathetic, vain, a wit and a confessor, is ambiguous and seductive, no a being to be trusted no matter the smooth surface of his speech. You read and you empathize with DT's workload as he details the limits of his abilities and lays out his frustration and then remember the roiling rage and devastation that are his stock and trade. Civilized, intelligent, sophisticated beyond imagination, this is merely a sleek glossing over a face that can only corrupt and undermine all forms of good will. Confusion, chaos and the spread of falsehood are the end-all qualities this curious entity exists to perpetuate.The peculiar mix of historical detail and shrewdly outlined characters gives the readers something that is better than formal history or History; it is Hitler as felt presence, a monster raised from circumstances not much different from our own. Mailer’s Hitler is a palpable presence, fully and masterfully realized, and the demon’s nonchalant, jaded recollection makes this book a chilling exploration into the imagined limits of historical record.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Regular readers doubtlessly have had the old baddance.blogspot.com URL link to some old pages of this blog and wonder where the recent stuff has gone to. If you've found this page, please note that the new address is ted-burke.blogspot.com, and this
is the result of an experiment with the New Blogger formatting; needless to say, I couldn't change back to the old address, and now feel like I'm on cold Arctic island.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A rant, and then a true story

Plagiarism seems a sociopathic activity, like other forms of theft, petty and grand. The thief, due to whatever contorted world view, finely ratcheted system of rationalization and a dependable lack of conscious that they're doing any something wrong, will merely take someone else's writing and assign their name to it, no problem.

The only labor involved was the discovery of the writing that's about to be absconded , and whatever effort it took to cut and paste the material. What is especially aggravating isn't the big names that have been caught pilfering from other authors--Goodwin, Ambrose and Haley can at least fall back on laying the blame on harried research staffs--but rather the thievery of the truly mediocre scribe who continually gets caught using other people's writing as his or her own, and yet continues to claim authorship for the work of others.

I ran a poetry series for years in the seventies and eighties, where open readings were featured, and among the other poets, good, bad but definitely original in their work, where three regulars who read Dickens, Blake, Eliot, Marvel and Johnson , each of them claiming to have written the poems they just voiced. Others in attendance at these readings couldn't believe what they were witnessing, but no one said anything, fearing a fight or some such thing, until finally I cornered one guy, a forty year old, at the end of the last open reading I would MC. He'd just read a thick, awkward Canto by Pound, and I could see a dog eared copy of Ezra's poems crammed in his backpack. He taken the time to type out what he was appropriating , and introduced the poem as "the hardest thing I've ever composed..." I told him he has to stop taken credit for poems someone else composed. Not blinking, he stared at he, zipping his backpack shut, obscuring the Pound volume I conspicuously made note of. "Fuck, you man," he said,"language is free and genius isn't understood
in it's lifetime."

"Ezra Pound is dead for decades" I said,"and I still don't like him. But you gotta stop saying his stuff is yours."

He walked out, the cafe owner turned out the lights,
and I stopped hosting poetry series that night onward, and that is precisely the reason I'm still able to write and read poetry without losing a lung in coughing disgust.